Neil Melanson isn't Chael Sonnen's normal head coach.
Sure, he'd helped Sonnen out for a week or two in preparation of specific fights, but when Sonnen's head coach Scott McQuarry had a medical emergency, Melanson just happened to have arrived that day to work on the ground with the title challenger.
Having worked in pre-fight camps for huge title fights before with elite competitors like Randy Couture and Gray Maynard, Melanson stepped up and made sure "The American Gangster" was as prepared as possible for UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva in the UFC 148 main event last Saturday night (July 7, 2012).
Obviously, things didn't go as planned with Silva winning via second round TKO, although they were looking pretty damn good after a dominant first round from the Oregon native.
And there's no one with a better perspective on what went wrong than Melanson, the man who helped forge Sonnen's gameplan for the biggest rematch in UFC history.
Melanson was a guest on The Verbal Submission yesterday and The Xtreme Couture grappling coach discussed exactly how he ended up temporarily taking over the camp, some of Sonnen's specific preparation and what massive failure in the camp he felt led to Sonnen's ultimate downfall.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): In case people aren't fully aware of what role you played in the lead-up to UFC 148, can you talk about what role you had in Chael Sonnen's preparation before the fight?
Neil Melanson: I worked with Chael a couple times as far as flying out to Portland for a week or two. I was just supposed to come out for 14 days to get him up to speed on the ground game and motivate him, just do what I can to help the other coaches.
Day one, the first day we started training was a Monday, and Chael's coach Scott McQuarry wanted to do a little warm-up with him before me and him got on the mat and during the warm-up, Scott just fell facedown on the mat and he was locked up like a seizure. He wasn't shaking, just locked up. Actually, Chael and I were the first responders until 911 came.
I had seen this before and I had thought he had a stroke. He looked like he had been knocked out, almost like he was snoring and he doesn't remember any of this. We weren't sure what was happening but he was stiff as a board and once he was awake, right around that time the fire department responders showed up and they took him to the hospital where he stayed for a night.
From there, basically, I stepped up and started getting the camp back on track.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Wow, so once he was out of the picture getting healthy, you basically took over Sonnen's camp. That was something you were completely not expected to do, right?
Neil Melanson: Yeah, I had no intentions of taking a lead role. It's kind of a tricky spot. When you're a specialist and you get called into a camp, you're basically an outside coach and when you step into camps like that, you don't want to make the other coaches feel like you're stepping on toes. You want to be like, "Hey, I'm just here to help."
Both the coaches there were really easy to work with. I was just kind of hanging back wanting to work on the ground but once [McQuarry] went down, it was up to me and Clayton to put it together and since I had more experience with big camps, MMA camps, it wasn't really hard for me to put the pieces together so we got back on our feet and running.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): It probably helped that one of the guys you were with at Xtreme Couture, Vinny Magalhaes, had helped Chael out too.
Neil Melanson: Yeah, Vinny was out there a couple weeks before I was an me and Vinny are friends so he kind of told me what he worked on and when I went out there, I just tried to continue the training. Actually, I did see some of Vinny's handiwork during the match in regards to the half guard pass and some of the ground work. That was stuff that Vinny worked on, that particular half guard pass into mount. They did a good job and Chael did a good job executing that gameplan.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Let's talk about what happened last night. I think everybody was like, "Here we go again" in the very beginning of that fight. Chael comes out with a full head of steam and just plows Anderson over, takes top position and rides him out the full round. As you mentioned the half guard, that looked like a good gameplan because it would be difficult for Anderson to catch him in a triangle or something from half guard. Maybe he could sweep but Chael's base is so strong that that wasn't going to happen either.
Neil Melanson: Well it wasn't so much that we wanted to sit in half guard as it was that we kind of thought Anderson would go to half. Just because it was an assumption made on our part that Anderson would do some homework like, "Hey, I got stuck in full guard against this cat and I got the tar beat out of me. Let's try butterfly or half guard. Let's try to sweep and get up. Let's go for the back."
We were thinking he was gonna do a phase two of that so part of the preparation was, we did a lot of preparation to not get caught in submissions in the full guard and how to set apart shots and play it safe and if he needed to rest, positions he could rest in and then into, "If we end up in half guard, how do we stay on top? How do we improve our position? How do we not get swept?" It was working along the plan pretty nice. When he got mount, he had nice leg ride and it's hard to escape that position. It was very dominant. I was very optimistic going into that second round. I thought this was gonna be a done deal by the third.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): What do you think it was in the second round that really was a big factor? Watching it from my perspective, Anderson came out in the first round with a big looping strike that Chael changed levels and took him down. But in the second round, Anderson was way more tentative to start and Chael had to shoot from way outside and couldn't get deep or catch him off balance. Is that kind of what you saw in the second round, at least in the first minute and a half?
Neil Melanson: Well I noticed that Anderson wanted to be near the fence, probably because it was gonna help him stay on two feet. Even though it sucks to get pinned against the fence, a lot of fighters are good at using the fence to get back up. That was something that I figured Anderson was gonna try to do. Where the mistake was made, and Chael did press the shot. He tried a couple times and Anderson did a great job of stuffing it, the gameplan is to continue that pressure no matter what. You shoot 10 times on him, I guarantee you're gonna get him down. You can't just shoot two or three times, you've got to keep that pressure.
Apparently Chael thought he saw an opening to do something wild and sometimes wild things work out and he threw that spinning back elbow which missed pretty badly and sitting on the ground there didn't help him. I think that right there, that little error of now stepping out of his world of wrestling into Anderson's world of striking is what got him in hot water quick.
It's unfortunate for Chael and it's great for Anderson because he beat his biggest rival and I think that cements him as Brazil's greatest athlete. It was an emotional night for me at least. I was excited to see the fight and watching it come apart, any time you're a part of training camp or you're friends with somebody and they lose, you just worry about them like, how are they gonna handle it mentally? Are they gonna come back from this? You know, I don't know what Chael's plans are, but I got a feeling he's done fighting. I don't know. I've just got a feeling he's done. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think he was serious when he said, 'If you beat me, I will leave forever,' and there's a very good chance of that.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Wow. That's incredible. Was that just a feeling? I know that he said that if he couldn't be champion, there was no point in fighting. He talked about that a lot before the fight. He said that was the only reason to fight and if he couldn't be champion, it was useless and he was gonna quit. So you think that if there's no chance of him getting another title shot then he's gonna be done?
Neil Melanson: I never met anyone that had a scenario where it's like, 'If I don't win this then I'm done,' it never worked out positive for them because, just in my experience, you have to love the grind and if you love the grind, eventually you'll get what you want because you give up what you need to give up. Apparently Chael had his limit like, 'This is it, I've had enough. If I don't win this then it's all not worth it.' Having lost that, yeah, there's a very good chance he could pursue other things. He's a very smart guy, very well spoken. I know, whether admits to it or not, he has a lot of passion to be a broadcaster of sorts. He seems to excel in any type of speaking arrangement. He loves doing interviews. He loves hyping fights and I'm sure he loves training and he's a good fighter. He's a great fighter and he's an awesome athlete but he can't fight forever and maybe he's at a point he'd like to do something else. Maybe I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong.
I'd like to see him fight a few times and try to keep growing because he was making some good adjustments on the ground and getting a lot better which was his weakness, getting caught in submissions. He was making that now a strength. He was countering that.
To be honest, and I have a bad habit of being honest, I think there was a failure in the camp a little bit with this and I think this is why the outcome was what it was. I think there was a little bit of assumption that Chael would get Anderson down a little too easy than they should have and maybe he should have wrestled more. When I got out there, not much wrestling had been done and when I took over, I put Chael back in wrestling a couple times a week and getting him back to his strength because in my opinion, I've seen this over and over and over again. That's when an athlete like Chael that has such a strong, specific strength, let's say wrestling. I've seen many wrestlers get good at striking and they start doing well, they maybe win a few fights but the fights but the fights tend to be close. They start winning decisions. They start to get comfortable and what happens is they forget what got them there in the first place which is their wrestling.
It's always good to train your weakness and you brought up Vinny for example. Vinny is such a good ground guy. He's an outstanding grappler. He wins lots of fights with some pretty badass submissions like the Magaplata he got in M-1 when he was the champion. That was pretty sweet to see in that kind of fight. I'm sure he's working on his striking but if he gets away from that ground game, if he just goes out there and boxes, he's gonna have problems. It's gonna catch up with him. Of all the athletes I work with, I remember Michael Chandler. I trained with him for his last four fights and I pleaded to him, "Learn from these guys' mistakes. You can keep getting better with your hands, that's outstanding, but don't forget what got you here and that is picking guys up, dumping them on the ground and smashing them in the face. Keep that tool sharpened."
In my opinion, I think that's what happened in the camp. Maybe it's just dumb luck. I know the coaches are very competent and they trained hard but just in my experience, any time I've seen a wrestler get away from his wrestling, it's always bit him in the ass and I think, in my opinion, that's what happened here.
You can follow Neil on Twitter @NeilMelanson.